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Tasty, original Korean cuisine at Soban in Petaluma

When I moved to Petaluma a few years ago I was delighted to note that there was a Korean restaurant here, and made a point to visit it shortly after my relocation. As I entered the front door I immediately felt welcomed, and a friend that I brought here recently said that the feng shui was nicely done, which might explain the sense of ease that washes over me every time I enter Soban Korean Cuisine.

Located in the Plaza North shopping center, this small restaurant is on the back row of businesses, near Trader Joe’s. The main menu is the same for both lunch and dinner, and at lunch they have some additional “lunch specials” so one actually has more choices at the noon hour.

I recently revisited Soban and took some friends who had never had Korean food. Both couples seemed delighted to experience something new.

Soban is run by the husband and wife duo of Daniel and Sarah Kim. Sarah runs the kitchen, and Daniel ably handles the front, so you always have the smiling presence of the owner taking care of you. While on occasion he can get a bit busy handling so much of the service by himself, he always gets to you and makes sure you are well served.

Some people think that all Korean food is super spicy, and like many assumptions, this is just not true. Daniel was very helpful in guiding our guests to exactly the right choices for them.

One of the things we especially enjoy about dining in a Korean restaurant are the little dishes of savory vegetables and fish, collectively or individually called banchan, which are served as part of the meal, starting right in the beginning. You can eat them when they arrive, or savor them as part of the meal. They usually always include kimchi, but all the rest are not spicy, at least at Soban, where even the kimchi is not really hot. You can think of these as the equivalent of chips and a few kinds of salsas at a Mexican restaurant.

The banchan at Soban were the same at both meals, save one. On the first visit we had kimchi, marinated bean sprouts, marinated cucumber, marinated fish cake, marinated turnips and some cooked and marinated Korean spinach. On the second visit the turnips had been replaced by a lovely dish of crunchy fresh gobo, which was cooked, and then marinated in a sweet sauce. Daniel even brought the whole gobo roots to the table and explained where they had come from when we asked about this dish.

The beer and wine list also includes some other traditional Korean spirits such as Soju and Sansachun. While not a long list, it is in keeping with the modest size and price range of this family-run restaurant. We tried sone of the sojus, and the sansachun, which is a Korean wine made with the red fruits of the sansa, and is supposed to be calming and therapeutic. We enjoyed them both.

In addition to alcoholic beverages, Soban has a nice list of unique teas. When we were there for lunch we had a hard time deciding so Daniel brought us one of each, and we had four different teas to share and try. We had green tea, as well as some traditional Korean teas ($2) – buckwheat tea, corn tea and barley tea. They were served at the proper temperature in individual pots, and were delicious with the food we chose.

Over the course of our lunch and dinner visits we tried several dishes. For starters we chose the Soban chicken ($10.95), good-sized cubes of tender chicken in a light fried batter, with soy-sesame glaze. We also had one of my favorites, the pan-fried Korean chive pancake ($8.95.) It was full of beautiful green onions, nicely mellowed by the cooking method and so tasty.

The entrees we experienced over the two visits were Galbi, specially cut and marinated and then grilled short ribs with a special house sauce ($20.95); Beef Bulgogi ($20.95), which is marinated sliced rib eye in a special sweet sauce, served over lots of grilled onions; Spicy Pork Bulgogi ($17.95); Soondubu ($14.95), which is a soft tofu stew with vegetables, and which can be ordered with additions like seafood, homemade kimchi or beef. I had the seafood addition.

We also tried pan-fried Mackerel ($12.95), very simply cooked, and Dolsot Bibimbap ($16.95), which was ordered with the addition of chicken.

The bibimbap is one of my favorite Korean meals. They have two main types of bibimbap; dolsot is cooked in a heavy and very hot stone pot, which is layered with rice, and topped with an assortment of vegetables, your choice of meat, chicken, tofu or seafood, and a fried egg. It is served with a special sauce that looks spicier than it tastes, and which is made with a miso base. You add the sauce to your taste.

The stone pot sizzles the rice, making it browned and crusty on the bottom, an attribute of this dish that everyone seemed to enjoy.

The Soondubu is a bit spicy, but not overly so to my taste. It is a huge bowl of soup/stew, and they bring it to the table in one of those great, hot stone bowls and it is boiling when it arrives. Daniel brought along a raw egg, and offered to crack it into the soup, letting me know to stir it in to the soup and it would cook. There was so much soup I took home about half of it to have for another meal.

If you have never tried Korean food, this is an adventure worth taking. Put yourself in the hands of Daniel and Sarah, and let them guide you toward the menu items with which you will be the happiest.